From the Norfolk, Virginia “Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch” July 9, 1949, page 9:
“Takes No Superman to Fly Jet Fighters – Two Veteran Navy Pilots Convinced New Planes Easier and Safer, Too” – By Herald Latham
You don’t have to be a superman to fly jet propelled airplanes. At least, no more so than to fly any combat plane.
That is the sentiment of a man who should know – Commander W. N. Leonard, USN, commanding officer of the Navy Fighter Squadron VF-171, one of the Navy’s two operational jet squadrons. During his 11 years in the Navy, Leonard has amassed a total of more than 2,300 hours flight time. Most of it has been in fighter planes. He has flown jets for several hundred hours during the slightly more than three years the Navy has had them. He has flown from the decks of aircraft carriers and from operational land bases.
Leonard’s opinion is seconded by another flier who demands a healthy respect. Lt. Comdr. W. B. “Wild Bill” Biggers, USN, executive officer of VF-171, says the same thing. Biggers is a veteran of 3,500 hours flight time and has been in the Navy for about eight and a half years.
Too Old to Fly – According to armchair critics these men are too old to be flying fighter planes, even conventional types, much less the hot jets. Leonard is 33 and Biggers is 29. They agree, however, that insofar as the mechanics of flying is concerned, the jet is easier to fly that the conventional reciprocating engine powered airplane.
“Why then,” they were asked, “is it that the public and pilots who have never flown jets think it is so hard?”
They explained it this way: Aside from a publicity stunt to attract adventuresome young men into military flying, the opinion that a jet is a ‘hot’ plane has been built up because it is probably the most publicized flying machine in history.
Classified Hush Hush – The jet has been classified as “hush hush” by high military officials. That puts the public’s imagination to work. Man is prone to exaggerate, so you get the feeling that super-natural powers are a prerequisite to jet flying.
Then too, Biggers and Leonard continued, when a pilot is transferred from conventional planes to jets he thinks of himself as a student pilot once more. As a student progresses from one type of plan to a more advanced one, he is confronted with more speed, more difficult flying conditions and has to conquer more “musts” in precision flying.
Actually, the hard thing about breaking a new pilot in on jets is that you have to convince them that jets are more simple than any plane he has ever flown before.
“Just what do you mean by simple?”
“Well,” Biggers said, “it’s like this. The jet cockpit is much more simple. It does not have near the number of engine instruments and gauges the older planes have. Engine instruments are the major worry for pilots at the crucial moments of taking off and landing.”
“You don’t have the trouble with engine torque when full power is suddenly applied. Since the engine is almost vibration free, the pilot is not subjected to fatigue as in reciprocating engine powered planes,” added Leonard.
Torque, as explained by Biggers is the tendency of an airplane to rotate on its longitudinal axis when full power is suddenly applied. It is caused by the propeller acting as a brake in the acceleration of the engine and thus the left wing f the plane is forced down if the engine rotates to the right. When the left wing of plane falls at extremely low altitudes, a crash might result.
Alert All The Time – “The big trouble with jets is that you have to be on the alert all the time,” Leonard said. “Jets travel at such high speed that a slight miscalculation in navigation will result in your being miles off your course or beyond your destination.”
“For example. You’re flying from here to Washington. A conventional fighter will make if in about 45 minutes. A jet will get there in 20 minutes. If the jet pilot has doped off he will be lost. The conventional fighter can dope off and still not be in too much trouble since he has more time to make a correction.”
“How does the jets higher landing speed affect its use as a carrier plane?”
“From my experience, Leonard answered, “It is the best carrier plane ever built.”
He said a jet could be “put down” exactly where you wanted it to go. The higher landing speed is counter-acted by increasing the tension on the wires that catch the plane to slow and stop it.
Leonard said high naval officials were apprehensive when jets were first flown from the decks of carriers. They were afraid the high speed and heavier weight would “bust” the jets as carrier based planes.
Now, Leonard continued, they are as much for the jets as the old “battle wagon” admirals were for battleships.
Pilot Training Not Difficult – “As an operational fighter plane does the jet offer any trouble to new jet fighters?”
“No,” was the emphatic answer. “It’s just a matter of fundamental intelligence. If a pilot flies the way he was taught to fly in the first place, he should have no trouble handling the jet,” Leonard said.
“Of course,” he continued, “the jet has opened a new field of aviation to the Navy. For that reason, we, the Navy, have been slow in converting to the jet fighter planes in comparison to the way the Air Force has converted. Heretofore, the Navy has stayed below or around the 15,000-foot altitude for fighter planes. Now, with the jet and the new tactics called for by them we can go up to a service ceiling of above 40,000 feet with the F2H ‘Banshee.’” (One of the planes the Navy has offered to pit against the Air Force’s giant B-36.)
“Since the Navy is having to develop new tactics, we have used only chosen experienced pilots for the new jets. When these tactics are completed, these men will be designated to other squadrons to help with their organization when they are equipped with jets.”
“Do you think you could pick, say, six brand new pilots from Pensacola (the Navy’s student pilot school) and make them into jet pilots just as easily as pilots of conventional airplanes?”
“I certainly do,” Biggers answered.
“Even to take them to carriers from operations there?”
“Yes, during the many months we have been operating from carriers, we have not had one fatal crash or a crash that the jet was not able to fly away from. That includes carrier landings after weeks, or in some cases, months of lay-offs.”
What About Reactions? – “The public has been reading about the slowing of the reflexes of pilots at high speeds. Does this actually happen or does it just apply to planes of the future which will break the super-sonic barrier?”
“Well, I’d say the reaction to speeds over 400 miles an hour is about the same as below that figure,” Biggers said. “You might compare it to the increase of the speed of a car from 40 to 60 miles an hour. You’re going faster so you start reacting sooner, the same way you do when you approach a curve at 40 and then again at 60.”
Both of these experienced pilots summed up jet-propelled flying this way: “You get there in less time.”
Leonard was CO of VF-171 from 1948 to 1950. Under his command it became the Navy’s first operational jet squadron and the first jet squadron to carrier qualify. He was the 73d naval aviator to qualify in jets and an ace from the Pacific Theater. He was also one of the F8F pilots who set the climb to time records at the Cleveland Air Show in 1946.